Beshear Looks Back, Forward on Kentucky’s Political Landscape

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 17, 2016 · 8:58 AM EST

In 2014, Steve Beshear sat in the first lady’s box during the State of the Union as President Barack Obama applauded the Democratic governor’s work on health care in Kentucky. Just two years later, Beshear is out of office and feuding with his Republican successor, who vowed to undo his work.

“And if you want to know the real impact this law is having, just talk to Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, who’s here tonight,” said Obama, referencing the Affordable Care Act. “Kentucky’s not the most liberal part of the country. That’s not where I got my highest vote totals. But he is like a man possessed when it comes to covering his commonwealth’s families.”

“Our efforts in health care have been second to none in the country,” Beshear told Roll Call in a recent interview. The recently former governor proudly relayed how the rate of uninsured people in Kentucky fell from 20 percent to 9 percent.

While Beshear’s legacy will undoubtedly include Kynect, the state’s insurance exchange, and Medicaid expansion, there is considerable tension in the Bluegrass State. Matt Bevin was not only elected governor in November to succeed Beshear, but he defeated the state’s sitting attorney general with the largest margin of victory for a Republican in a Kentucky gubernatorial contest since the Civil War. And Bevin made repealing Beshear’s health care decisions a linchpin of his campaign.

“He says the current system is unsustainable but he doesn’t have the facts to back it up,” Beshear said of Bevin’s plans. “We’ll have to wait and see what steps are really attempted.”

“The biggest thing to stop any rollback are the people themselves,” the former governor said, counting on close to 500,000 people who received health care coverage for the first time to oppose Bevin.

Even though it got the most national attention, Beshear’s time in office was about more than health care.

“From my vantage point, we brought Kentucky through the worse recession of our lifetimes. We’re really on the move here,” reflected Beshear, who cited an unemployment rate that decreased from 11 percent to 4.9 percent but mentioned more work needing to be done in Eastern Kentucky with the decline of the coal industry. But Beshear deferred to Kentuckians on his legacy.

“The people of the state define a governor’s legacy more than he does himself,” he said.

Beshear reflected on his eight years in office to Roll Call just a few hours after seeing his son Andy sworn in as Kentucky’s state attorney general.

“He’s intelligent and talented and has the right temperament for the job,” said Beshear, who would know what the job entails since he held the job from 1979 to 1983, when Andy was a toddler.

Andy was one of the only Democratic survivors last November in an election that saw Republicans take over the governorship, state treasurer’s office, and defeat state Auditor Adam Edelen. Democrats hoped Edelen would use a re-election victory as a springboard to take on GOP Sen. Rand Paul in 2016.

Democrats are also trying to keep control of the state House, which Republicans haven’t controlled since 1921. It is the last state legislative body in the South still held by Democrats. Their task is being made more difficult by Bevin’s penchant for appointing Democratic legislators to state positions, creating vulnerable open seats.

Democrats’ preferred that Steve Beshear would take on Paul this year, but the 71-year-old says he is done running for office.

“I’m hopeful we’ll come up with a substantive Democrat,” said Beshear with the Jan. 26 filing deadline quickly approaching. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and retired Marine Corps Reserve officer Andrew Horne are considering bids, but the former governor believes Democratic recruiting efforts are hampered, not just against recent heavy losses in the state, but the reputation of Washington, where “no one can agree on the time of day.”

“People look at Washington and are disgusted,” according to Beshear. “Most people are not left or Right. They are common-sense type of people. They just want government to work.”

“Not many people want those jobs anymore,” Beshear explained about recruiting for federal offices. “Every former governor I’ve talked to in the Senate isn’t the happiest of people.”

“A governor can make things happen,” he continued. “As a senator, all you do is raise money, travel back and forth, and give speeches.”

It’s not that Beshear never tried to come to Washington to see for himself, considering he challenged GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1996.

“He is a ruthless campaigner,” recalled Beshear, who said he learned to become a better fundraiser as a result of his 56-43 percent loss. “You better be as well-funded as possible because the other party will define themselves, but they will also define you.”

The two-term governor has survived the partisan political wars and had some nonpartisan advice for his successor.

“Running a government is much different than running a campaign,” Beshear said. “There are no easy answers.”

“Surround yourself with very good people. That’s step one,” he continued “Step two is listen to them.”